Spain: land of equal opportunity?

Most of the 11 percent of the Spanish population who are immigrants have integrated well But education cuts are starting to slow the process

Alejandra Agudo
Brazilians Rosemeri Bastos and Francisco Andre Teixeira with their two daughters in Santa Coloma de Gramenet.
Brazilians Rosemeri Bastos and Francisco Andre Teixeira with their two daughters in Santa Coloma de Gramenet.CONSUELO BAUTISTA (EL PAÍS)

A decade ago, Rosemeri Bastos and her husband Francisco Andre Teixeira packed their bags and left their home in Fóz de Iguaçu in the south of Brazil, headed for Spain and ended up in the Barcelona dormitory town of Santa Coloma de Gramenet. Their elder daughter, aged five when she arrived here, is now about to finish high school. After she receives her high-school diploma, next year she will begin 11th grade, taking science studies that she hopes will lead to a place at medical school. “Her grades are very good,” her mother says proudly. “She is very intelligent. She picked up Spanish very quickly; Catalan took a while longer.”

The younger daughter, aged six, was born in Spain, and is the only member of the family with dual nationality: her parents and sister will obtain it in 2015. The degree to which they belong to one culture or another is not a topic of family conversation. "It's not important," Bastos says. "We are an average family, we work hard, we have a car, a rented apartment, and the children have never told us they feel discriminated against, and they have had no problems as a result of being the children of foreigners."

UK Independence Party rocks the boat


Immigration is a mounting concern among voters in Britain: UKIP, the anti-EU and anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party, recently garnered around a quarter of the vote in local elections. Its supporters accuse migrants of taking jobs away from the British, abusing the welfare system, and of not bothering to integrate. But a 2010 study entitled Culture Clash or Culture Club: National Identity in Britain shows that 43 percent of first-generation immigrants living in the UK say they feel British, while 98 percent of second-generation immigrants said the same. The numbers of those identifying with the host culture are just as high among communities traditionally thought of as not integrating, such as Pakistanis, 88 percent of whom born in the UK say they feel British; in the case of Bangladeshis, the figure is almost 90 percent.

Another study from 2010, entitled Ethnicity and Second Generation Immigrants, concludes: "Second-generation immigrants tend to be better educated than their parents' generation, and better educated than their white native peers."

That said, the study adds: "These British-born ethnic minorities are less likely to have jobs and earn on average lower wages even if they had the same characteristics as their white British-born peers."

The Bastos children's experience is not unusual, according to the conclusions of a study on second-generation immigrants carried out by the Ortega y Gasset University Institute and Princeton University. Around 50 percent of the 6,900 teenagers surveyed in state and private schools said they felt Spanish. The majority said they would continue with their studies, hoping, like their colleagues born to Spanish parents, to continue on to university, although the figures show that few are yet able to do so.

Immigrants now make up 11 percent of the overall population, and have generally adapted well, says sociologist Rosa Aparicio, who co-organized the survey. “Integration is slow, but favorable. Spanish society has generally welcomed immigrants. We are not free of racist attitudes, but neither have we seen conflict or violence of the kind that has taken place in France, for example.”

Iñaki García is also a sociologist, and is less optimistic about immigrants’ opportunities in Spain. He argues that the “real” possibilities of achieving their dreams are still remote, compared to those of Spaniards. “This can be seen, for example in the school grades of second-generation immigrants [which are half a point below the children of Spaniards] and income levels [significantly below Spanish households]. These are the most accurate indicators, and give us a better idea of the real likelihood of them gaining a university degree,” he says.

Aparicio plays down the economic aspect: "There is a real degree of equal opportunities." But at the same time she admits the crisis could endanger some of the progress made. Taking into account the cuts and the lack of state funding for grants, housing and text books, many immigrants could be forgiven for thinking that "nationals come first," she says. "But such attitudes are not widely held in Spain."

Pauly Osorio, a 31-year-old Ecuadorian living in a small community in Cáceres, Extremadura, is another who says her children have not experienced discrimination at school. “The eldest was just 20 months when we brought him here, he’s now 13,” says his mother, who works as an office cleaner. “He knows he is Ecuadorian, but it’s not important to him. His friends are not bothered about it either, and they have always been Spanish: he’s the only Ecuadorian in the class.”

But many experts say that while the children of immigrants may not experience discrimination directly, that doesn't mean they aren't being discriminated against in other ways. "Sometimes it is very subtle," says Vladimir Paspuel, the head of Rumiñahui, which represents Spain's Ecuadorian community. "Officially, they are Spaniards, but they continue to be seen as immigrants, and are not given the same opportunities. What does a business owner think when he or she receives a résumé from somebody called Mohamed? Most likely he or she will throw it in the bin, even though the candidate has the same qualifications as a native," he says.

A less subjective indicator is friendships. The friends of second-generation immigrants tend to be the children of Spanish parents. "This mix helps integration," says Aparicio.

Xenophobia back on the agenda


The trial of Beate Zschäpe for her alleged involvement in nine racially motivated murders by a gang of neo-Nazis between 2000 and 2006 has reopened the debate in Germany about racism and integration. Barbara John, a Christian Democrat (CDP) politician who has taken on the role of interlocutor for victims of racial hatred, said last week: "Germans have a long way to go before they accept that citizens of immigrant origin are also German."

In recent years, Germany's lingering racism has revealed itself in the comments of some leading politicians. In 2010, Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician Thilo Sarrazin published Germany Abolishes Itself , an attack on postwar immigration policy. Meanwhile, former president Christian Wulff of the CDP came under attack for saying "Islam is part of Germany."

Chancellor Angela Merkel went further in criticizing immigration policy, saying simply: "Multiculturalism has failed."

But John doesn't agree: "Multicultural coexistence is a reality in Germany. I don't know what failure they are talking about."

A survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an SPD think-tank, reveals 39 percent of East German voters say they are xenophobic; in the west, it is 22 percent. Meanwhile, nine percent of Germans say they have a "far-right worldview." Two years ago the figure was 8.2 percent.

Héctor Cebolla, a sociology lecturer at the publicly funded UNED distance learning university, says immigration is widely distributed in Spain. "There are no ghettos," he says.

Aparicio adds: "There are areas of Madrid or Barcelona that have larger immigrant populations than others, but this is not comparable to the large concentrations found in the outlying districts of other European cities."

A shared cultural heritage also plays a big role in integration, which explains why Latin Americans are among the most assimilated immigrants in Spain. Being native speakers of the language helps schoolchildren improve their grades and their parents find work, says Aparicio. Despite the linguistic advantage, the children of Argentineans, Mexicans and Colombians have not integrated to the same degree as their Filipino counterparts. "[Filipinos] have retained shared values and customs," says María Dolores Elizalde, a researcher at the CSIC Science Council.

Javier Ruescas, the director of the Galeón de Manila Filipino cultural association, agrees: "They celebrate Holy Week and Christmas in the same way as in Spain: they eat the same seasonal sweets as us. And Filipino cuisine is very Spanish. They share many dishes. Even their dances and traditional music are Hispanic."

At the other extreme is Spain's Moroccan community, second only to Romania's as the least integrated. Moroccan children achieve the poorest school grades and the lowest percentage of them go on to college. Aparicio says religion is not a factor in Moroccans' slow assimilation, but admits Spaniards retain many stereotypes. "We tend to think that Muslims have no respect for human rights, that they do not value women, along with other negative characteristics," she says, adding that such negative perceptions makes it hard for both communities to build bridges.

Spain’s immigration boom is now largely over, and there has been considerable integration over the last 20 years, but there is still a long way to go, say many experts. But they warn the government’s ongoing austerity measures could set back the good work achieved as a result of a largely welcoming host society and new arrivals keen to fit in.

Education system just coping with multiculturalism

J. A. AUNIÓN, Madrid

The Spanish education system has faced many challenges over the last three decades. It had barely come to terms with the raising of the school leaving age to 16, when in the early 2000s, it had to deal with the impact of a rapid increase in immigration. In 1999, just 1.4 percent of schoolchildren in Spain were from abroad, but by 2003 that figure had risen to 5.6 percent, reaching almost 10 percent by 2008. The overwhelming majority went into the state school system, straining already overstretched resources in many cases.

Luisa Martín Rojo, a lecturer at Madrid's Autónoma University, says schools were given little government support: "They just got on with it." This involved recycling support programs, she says, as well as designing specific schemes to help integration. "The result today is that we are neither complacent nor alarmed: there has been a gradual improvement, but much remains to be done."

Martín Rojo bases her evaluation on her own experience, as well as the results of a survey into adaptation by the children of immigrants carried out by the Ortega y Gasset University Institute and Princeton University. This shows that the average school grades of the children of immigrants born in Spain or who arrived here before their 12th birthday, is 6.15, half a point below the average Spanish grade, and that 80 percent of children aged between 17 and 18 surveyed in 2008 were still in school four years later.

"Infant school-aged children of immigrants do not present much of a problem to teachers, given that they do not require teachers to change their approach," says Enrique Díez, a lecturer at the University of León. "In junior high, problems can still be sorted out quickly, given the age and ability to learn and integrate." The problems begin in high school, he says, with children who are older, "and may not know the language or the rules of society."

In short, the younger children from other countries attend school in Spain, the less likely they are to have problems integrating, and more likely simply to face the same problems as Spanish pupils from low-income families. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) annual Pisa exam - in which Spanish 15-year-olds tend to do badly compared with those from other developed countries - has consistently highlighted the extent to which the Spanish education system offers the same opportunities to children from poorer backgrounds.

In the 2009 Pisa exam, students from low-income families scored higher than the OECD's average (423 to 417 points), while boys from wealthy families scored comparatively lower (539 to 569 points). Furthermore, among the developed countries, Spain ranks eighth in terms of students from poorer backgrounds performing well academically: 36 percent.

None of which means that Spain couldn't improve its education system, particularly in terms of helping the children of immigrants at a time when spending cutbacks (6.7 billion euros in three years) are eradicating support programs for poorer families. The Ortega y Gasset/Princeton research shows that just five percent of second-generation immigrants make it to university, while 70 percent say they would like to, and 57 percent believe they will.

Still trapped in the ghetto


Around 26 percent of the French population are immigrants or descended from immigrants, putting the country among Europe's most pluralist, with around six million Muslims, who are the largest religious group after Catholics, and at least 12 million direct descendants of foreign migrants.

Around 34 percent of immigrants are of European origin, around 30 percent are from North Africa, 14 percent are from Asia, and 11 percent are from sub-Saharan Africa. France has now notched up its third generation of immigrants, with around 180,000 arriving each year. Despite its ample experience of immigration and the sizeable proportion of the population made up by migrants, there is a lot of debate in French society about immigration.

In theory, France's secular and universal education system guarantees equal opportunities, but the country has a long way to go. The country's racial diversity is not reflected among its elite groups: the ghettos that ring its main cities, which are periodically hit by outbreaks of violent protest, prevent social mobility and integration.

Figures such as Rachida Dati, the second-generation Moroccan appointed justice minister by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, or her replacement, Christiane Taubira, born in French Guyana, as well as French-Moroccan Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, President François Hollande's spokeswoman, are the exceptions. Sport is still the only area where immigrants and their children have a chance. Otherwise they are largely absent from public life.

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